de-culturing Yoga: Or, “You say asana, I say assana”

sadhus (yogis) at the Kumbh Mela, Haridwar, 2010

I’m a fan of The Babarazzi and of this post in particular:  Is De-Culturing Yoga an Act of Good Faith or a Promotion of Xenophobic Ideology? /// A Light and Easy Subject

There is a great discussion going on in the comments and I liked this one in particular.  A commenter said:

“There is a similar “secularizing” trend in Buddhism these days and some thought provoking articles in the Fall issue of Tricycle.  A quote from one:

“We reassure ourselves that the changes we’ve made in Buddhism are all for the best — that Buddhism has always adapted itself to every culture it enters, and we can trust it to adapt wisely to the West. But this treats Buddhism as if it were a conscious agent — a wise amoebic force that knows how to adapt to its environment in order to survive. Actually, Buddhism isn’t an agent and it doesn’t adapt. It gets adapted — sometimes by people who know what they’re doing, sometimes by people who don’t. Just because a particular adaptation survives and prevails doesn’t mean that it’s genuine dharma. It may simply appeal to the desires and fears of its target audience… Is a designer dharma what we really want?… People sometimes argue that in our diverse, postmodern world we need a postmodern Buddhism in which no one’s interpretation can be criticized as wrong.  But that’s trading the possibility of total freedom from suffering for something much less: the freedom from criticism…” -Thanissaro Bhikkhu

Replace the word “Buddhism” with “yoga” and tell me how it reads then.  As Thanissaro Bhikku asks, is a designer dharma Yoga what we really want?

More than a few yoga bloggers have written about the commodification or the cultural appropriation of yoga in the West.  Another commenter to the above Babarazzi post said, “In tonight’s class the teacher invited us to pantomime Hindu deities (i.e. “Kali” = squat and bring arms up and growl like lil’ grizzly bears; “Ganesh” = make an elephant’s trunk with our arms ; “Shiva” = stand on one leg and pretend to play the flute).”  Actually, the last one would be Krishna not Shiva.  Wonder if the teacher actually said Shiva.  Yikes.

I stopped saying namaste at the end of my classes when I came back from India the first time because I learned it does not mean “I bow to the light within you” or “the Divine in me honors the Divine in you” or “I honor the [fill in the blank] in you” or whatever the latest interpretation is.  After my first trip, saying it at the end of my class did not feel true to me anymore, it felt false, but that’s me.  Hey, you say po-TA-toe, I say po-TAY-toe.  As my friend Caroline says, “Don’t fold your hands and say ‘Namaste.’  Nobody does that, and if someone does, it means they have earmarked you as a naïve foreigner.”   Caroline lives in India.   People do not say it where I go because Tamil is spoken, not Hindi.

There was a short discussion on the use of namaste in my last training with Ganesh Mohan.  Every morning he led a practice and at the end said a simple “thank you” — as the teachers at the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram say at the end of class; they never say namaste, the Westerners do.  The teacher I certified with also does not say namaste at the end of class; again, he simply thanks us.  I’ve wondered how namaste-ing at the end of a Western yoga class started.

When Ganesh said “thank you”, some of the students responded with namaste.  Ganesh smiled and said, “about that namaste….” and began to explain that at its most basic it means “hello.”   So why would I say hello at the END of my class?  I open my workshops with a big NAMASTE and I bow.

He said nama means “to bow” and te is the familiar form of “you”, just like there is the familiar and formal uses of “you” in Spanish, tu and usted.   However, he explained, in India one would not say namaste to an elder or to someone who is, shall we say, higher on the economic scale, that in fact, they would be insulted and might even get angry.  Better to say namaskar, Ganesh said.

After the explanation the students were silent for a few moments.  Then someone said, “well, another thing we’ve appropriated.”

Yeah, kinda.

I recite the four Brahma Viharas at the end of my classes:

May all beings have happiness and the causes of happiness.
May all beings be free from suffering and the cases of suffering.
May all beings never be parted from freedom’s true joy.
May all beings be free from attachment and aversion.

and then…


And I bow and thank them.

Peace and gratitude….good things to leave class with.